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Wikipedia's Battle for Paradise

Wikipedia's Battle for Paradise

The online archaeology of a single word.

Paradise by Jan Bruegel.

The earliest surviving record of Paradise appears on September 27, 2002 at 14:24. It is a short text, offered by an anonymous source with the IP address 64.26.98.90, traced to an unspecified public library. It gives an account of Paradise as heaven, a Garden of Eden on earth, awaiting the chosen, and then lists a number of places in the United States of America that bear the name:

Paradise is:

The ideal place on Earth which was once in the Garden of Eden

The heaven which, in some religions, awaits the best or chosen people

The name of some places in the United States of America:

Paradise, Louisiana

Paradise, Michigan

Paradise, Pennsylvania

It is a month and two days before the entry to "Paradise" is changed. On October 29, 2002, an anonymous user with the same IP number corrects a crucial oversight: Paradise, California was missing from the list. A month later, two more locations—Paradise, Pennsylvania and Paradise Township, Pennsylvania—are added, again from the same IP number. It seems safe to assume that this early expansion of Paradise was due to the efforts of the same individual. After November 2002, that IP number never appears again.

The next entry—a surprising leap in some ways—comes in April 2003 from a user with the handle Montrealais. After the entries on heaven and before the Paradises of America, Montrealais inserts "the third book of Dante’s Divine Comedy." A later addition, Milton’s Paradise Lost, was initially entered as "a classic novel" before a wiki-vigilante corrected the designation to "epic poem." A little later, in November of 2003, an anonymous user quietly observes that Paradise is also "an enclosed garden, sometimes called a paradise garden."

The battles over Paradise begin in earnest in 2004. After a few minor and often redundant additions and corrections by various early sources, the first volley is fired by a man with the username Mani1, a clear reference to a valiant and ancient Iranian prophet. Rather than inserting an additional meaning or word, Mani1, a resident of Tehran, Iran, starts right at the top. 

“Paradise,” he writes, “is a Persian loanword into English (from the Persian word Pardis). This word has the following usages in English…”,  after which the previous list of meanings and places, including the American paradises, follow unaltered. It is made clear that every meaning that follows or can possibly follow, including heaven itself, which by now has turned into "the heaven of bliss," along with all the paradises of America, issue from the Persian seed word. Before all else, Paradise is Persian. We can say that at that moment, 21:35, August 6, 2004, on Wikipedia, Paradise was politicized.

The response is not swift, presumably because Wikipedia’s fame and traffic had not peaked and the Web 2.0 tools it makes available had not yet been fully mastered. When it does come, the parry is not from an unexpected front. The user Fivetrees identifies himself as the CEO of a small company in Israel and expresses a particular interest in "Litaim (Lithuanian) Judaism," including all its yeshivas and rabbis as well as such topics as kabbalah and reincarnation. His other areas of knowledge span Cratology, Cerebral Breathing and Royalty. In December 2004, Fivetrees quietly adds Hebrew to the origins of Paradise. We now read: “Paradise is a Persian loanword into English (from the Persian word Pardis, hebrew PaRDeS)…”

For the next two years, Paradise is altered and interpreted in this double vein: a quiet battle over its origins right at the top and the slow accretion of earthly references at the bottom. By then the list of terrestrial paradises has grown to twelve, including Paradise, Kansas and a new paradise each in Canada and Australia. Notably, in June of 2005, Paradise, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England is added. No paradises are listed in Iran or Israel. And once it is mentioned that Paradise is also the name of a TV series, Paradise is quickly opened up to pop culture, for it happens to be also the name of an album by a band called Paint it Black, the title of several films, as well as the nickname for the home stadium of the Glasgow Celtics.

“I am working on my Ph.D in medical physics at The University of Texas Health Science Center,” the user Zereshk says about himself. He has an MS in Nuclear Engineering from the University of Tennessee, did graduate level work in architecture and holds an advanced certificate in astronomy from the University of Shiraz in Iran, where he was born. He is, in his own words, “overwhelmed to the point of insanity for attempting to make sense of cosmogonical questions embedded in time and causalityTay al-Ard, ‘the measurement problem’, the connection between quantum mechanics and reality, and that ever-elusive bitch called Consciousness.” Overwhelmed indeed. He has begun to doubt causality altogether, he admits, and is sure that there is something fundamentally flawed in our perception of time. None of it has prevented wide-ranging contributions to the universe of Wikipedia, garnering him a number of "Barnstar" awards for his tireless work on Iranian-related topics. Such as Paradise. To which it is he who on 14 May, 2005 reintroduces the purely Persian origins, relegating Hebrew to the backseat and adding to the reliability of his claim by citing a print source: “Persians: Masters of Empire, p62, ISBN: 0-8094-9104-4.”

Subsequently, Paradise becomes Avestan (an old Zoroastrian language)—in which it apparently meant "a walled garden," or more accurately the “famed Persian ‘paradise’ garden”—and along the way gets related to Armenian, Sanskrit and most importantly Greek and the Greek version of the Bible, the Septuagint, where, it is said, the word was first used with something like the meaning "we" give to it today: “heaven or something immensely pleasurable.”

There is no direct mention of Christianity for a long time. The New Testament is inserted by the wikischolars only at the beginning of 2007, in which, it is said, Paradise is transformed from the "Garden of Eden" to "heaven"—from a lost past, in other words, to a future to be gained. With this creeps in the possibility of apocalypse and the end times. Behind the Islam-Iran-Israel-Judaism tug of war, the Christian claim on Paradise is slowly brought from the assumed subtext to the surface of things. But through the jostling, a quiet consensus begins to settle on Wikipedia’s entry for Paradise. Persians, Greeks, Jews and Christians all appear right there in the first paragraph in some important capacity or other. Paradise, the multicultural.

Amidst the industrious corrections of roaming bots such as JAnDbot and XLinkBot, punctuated by a few lyrical and delinquent moments of vandalism and wiki graffitti, subsequently deleted—(eg. on March 8, 2006, for a few hours Paradise was "best described as Koh Samui, a remote island in Thailand" and for seventeen hours between 2:29 am April 24, 2007 and 19:02 in the evening, anyone visiting Paradise in Wikipedia would have come across paradise as "Another term for … the country of America and the world that it controls," whereas later another user briefly manages to define paradise as a place where "the grass is green and women are whores")—the wikistruggle makes clear the stakes: Who was there first? Who can lay claim to Paradise? For he who owns Paradise decides who gets in. And who stays out.

The multicultural subdivisions of Paradise grow slowly and consistently, with a variety of religions, sects and other groups creating their own sub-sections with descriptions of their own Paradise, as well as its opposites. Hence we are introduced to the Jehovah’s Witness Armageddon and the spirit prison of the Mormons. But perhaps the most intriguing claim on Paradise belongs to the sect of "social libertarians," who position themselves above the religious section under the heading "modern secular use" and subheading "Sociology." We shall return to this and the person responsible for it shortly, but it is important to first note the conditions of possibility for such a claim.

For Paradise is effectively secularized a little after midnight on November 15, 2008. A user named Fullstop completely changes the landscape by scrapping the old opening to "Paradise" and replacing it as follows:

Paradise is an idealized place in which existence is positive, harmonious and timeless. It is conceptually a counter-image of the miseries of human civilization, and in paradise there is only peace, prosperity, and happiness. Paradise is a place of contentment, but it is not necessarily a land of luxury and idleness.

Paradisaical notions are cross-cultural, often laden with pastoral imagery, and may be cosmogonical or eschatological or both…

The entry then cites a wide array of examples from Ancient Egyptian, Vedic, Native American and other belief systems. From this secular perspective, "Paradise" is not a place but a concept that can encompass all other beliefs and their illusory idealisms. There is very little information on the editor Fullstop. His userpage is merely inscribed with an elusive phrase: “This editor is away (probably on a walkabout in the belly of the whale), so please leave a message after the beep... *beep*.” An analysis of his contributions, however, reveals Fullstop to be an indefatigable editor, with over two hundred contributions to Wikipedia per month (209 in the month of September 2009 alone), mostly on topics that seem related to the history, philosophy and geography of areas east of the Danube. 

With negligible alterations, this view of Paradise is the current surviving one, from which all other subsections ensue.

Which takes us back to the subsection, now disappeared, on "modern secular use." The category is introduced two months after Fullstop’s alteration and is described by the user as intended to add ideas “advanced by sociological conceptions.” Thus paradise is now described as "a society," one “whose organizational features serve to render, and are fully calibrated towards, the harmonious luxuriating development of the psychological, physiological and creative natures of mankind.” These features make the user identify any such society as a “socio-political milieu characterized by a social-libertarian standard.”

The user goes by the name Kyle Vialli. It seems not coincidental that five days later an anonymous user with IP address 79.78.204.148 modifies the entry to identify "Kyle Vialli" as a “social theorist” and claiming the above-mentioned view of paradise as one of his social theories by placing the whole paragraph in quotes.

Kyle Vialli does not have a userpage but a Google search pulls up a Brighton, UK-based man who defines himself as a “Meta-Vitalitist,” meaning someone whose “playwork involves the instantiation, generation, isolation, and fundamentally, the harmonious unification of all strata of vitality.” He is given to tweeting phrases such as “The ecstacy of being increases hyperbolically [sic] as the exemplary nature of our true force comes into unmistakable form and function.” Vialli is the owner of a “Bio-Alive soul food café and lighthouse,” which, as the comments indicate, attracts many “ecstatic beings,” and the co-creator of a social networking site called The Heart Family, which is there to “unite and help remind us all of our connection to each other." The site’s URL, now defunct, is pushingforparadise.com.

Related on maisonneuve.org:

—The Intelligent Universe
—Persian Dub
—Revolution of the Two Ahmads

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